10 Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Landlord

key passed from landlord to tenantDeciding to buy a rental property may not seem like a legal decision; however, one of the most important parts of being a landlord (besides building maintenance) is making sure your actions are legally sound.  From the signing of the rental agreement to the day you evict a tenant, every action of a landlord must be in line with local regulations.

DO vet a potential tenant before renting to them.

If you want to avoid missed rental payments, excessive property damage, and broken rental agreements, establish a legal vetting process for each tenant.  Note the first term: legal.  You’d be foolish not to vet your prospective tenants, but it’s essential to contact an attorney so you know what you can do during the vetting process and what questions you can ask applicants.  Improper execution of either process can lead to legal repercussions from denied applicants.

DON’T use a generic rental agreement.

Many a rental property owner has tried to save money by downloading a generic rental agreement they find on the internet.  Unfortunately, this is a case where frugality can get you financial trouble later; using a generic one-size-fits-all rental agreement can leave you vulnerable to problems because of the different regulations specific to each state. Contact a local attorney to make sure your rental agreement is updated and specific to your state, protects your rights and the tenant’s rights, doesn’t include prohibited terms, and doesn’t place any additional and unnecessary obligations on your shoulders.

DO document the condition of your rental property before tenants move in.

Before you rent out your property, take pictures of every room in the unit.  Make a complete list of flaws; this gives you a documented defense in several different situations.  Those pictures can be valuable if you need to prove your tenant did the damage, if your tenant claims there was an issue when they moved in, or in other legal issues that may arise.

DON’T rent to tenants without a signed rental agreement.

Don’t skip the vital step of having your tenant sign a rental agreement.  Meeting with your tenant to sign the rental agreement also gives you the opportunity to review the terms of the rental agreement.  You should also provide your tenant with a copy of the signed agreement, and document that you provided the tenant with the agreement.  Keep the signed copy in a file that you can easily reference if needed.

DO know when you can keep a security deposit.

Keeping a tenant’s security deposit can lead to legal ramifications later.  Make sure you know up front when you can keep the security deposit, how much you can keep, and what documentation is needed for the process.

DON’T assume you can legally walk in to your rental property at any time.

You may own the property, but according to Wisconsin laws you cannot enter a tenant’s unit unless you give 12 hours notice.  Landlords can only enter for three reasons: 1) to check out a problem; 2) to make repairs; 3) to show the unit to prospective buyers or renters.

DO enter if there is an emergency.

A landlord can legally enter a rented unit if there is an emergency, if entry would prevent an emergency, or if the tenant consents to entry.

DON’T forget to note the day your tenants give notice.

Depending on the terms of your rental agreement, you may be able to deduct the amount of unpaid rent from your security deposit.  Document the date your tenants give notice.  If the notice is delivered in person, let your tenants know what condition you expect of the unit after they move out.

DO take pictures when they move out.

Don’t ever underestimate the value of documenting as a landlord; if any problems turn into a legal proceeding, the landlord needs to have the original documentation. That’s why it’s important to take pictures of any damage that was done to the unit after the tenants moved out, and the condition of the unit in general.

DON’T forget to contact your attorney if you don’t know your legal rights (and your tenant’s).

Don’t assume that your actions are legal without contacting an attorney.  Even actions that seem common-sense can lead to legal issues.  For example, if you are not sure if it is legal to evict a tenant, contact an attorney BEFORE you evict—and ask about the steps you need to take when you evict.  Simply put, a few minutes of your time now can save you from the cost, time, and effort of landlord legal hassles later.

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